Revelation by Numbers: Introducing “The Joseph Smith Formula”

Posted: April 13, 2014 in Doctrine & Covenants, Fred Anson, Mormon Studies

Last Supper Paint by Numbers Kit
by Fred W. Anson

There was a time when the Mormon Expression podcasts had a way of provoking thought and challenging me to “go deeper”. For example, a bygone podcast on D&C 8 and 9[1] contained an interesting analysis and spirited panel discussion on how Joseph Smith described and practiced the process of receiving revelation.

Going directly to the source:
“I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart. Now, behold, this is the spirit of revelation.”

(D&C 8:2-3a)

“Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.

But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.

But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong; therefore, you cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me.”
(D&C 9:7-9)

Well, that sounds (like all the D&C revelations do) somewhat profound and quite spiritual when taken on its own at face value and in isolation. However, when the text is fully considered in light of the historical context given in the headnotes it’s hard to escape the possibility that they’re more indicative of something else: Manipulation.

Here are those headnotes:

Revelation given through Joseph Smith the Prophet to Oliver Cowdery, at Harmony, Pennsylvania, April 1829. In the course of the translation of the Book of Mormon, Oliver, who continued to serve as scribe, writing at the Prophet’s dictation, desired to be endowed with the gift of translation. The Lord responded to his supplication by granting this revelation.”
(headnote for D&C 8; retrieved date of post)

Revelation given through Joseph Smith the Prophet to Oliver Cowdery, at Harmony, Pennsylvania, April 1829. Oliver is admonished to be patient and is urged to be content to write, for the time being, at the dictation of the translator, rather than to attempt to translate.”
(headnote for D&C 9; retrieved date of post)

Thus,  when viewed in light of their historical context, is it possible that these two revelations are nothing more than an example of the kind of “thus saith the Lord” style prophetic utterances and made-for-the-moment revelations that have always been used within abusive churches and cults as a means of controlling the membership in general – and chafing, unruly members in particular?

Notice how in these interrelated revelations Oliver Cowdery is first dangled the carrot of the promise that he will be able to translate if he stays faithful (D&C 8) but then given the stick that that this divine gift will have to wait until he’s done fulfilling his current role of service to Joseph Smith as his scribe rather than attempting his own translations (D&C 9:3-5) . Of course, it’s Smith who’s conveniently receiving this timely reprimanding, correcting revelation (D&C 9).  He’s also told not to “murmur” about any of this (D&C 9:6). Folks this is nothing new and has been a standard tool of manipulation by cult leaders since time immortal.

Further, when all the revelations are taken as a whole, the Doctrine & Covenants meta-narrative seems to indicate that this dynamic of manipulation was in play in each of the revelations. This is readily apparent in that they’re all rather formulaic and quite often repetitive. This is even more apparent when one reads them chronologically[2] not skipping over the headnotes, and still more apparent when you combine all that with a good understanding of True Mormon History.[3]

Specifically, the pattern that emerges is the following formula:


R = Revelation
c = challenge
d = desire
t = threat intensity accelerator
(the bigger the threat the bigger, more grandiose, was the resulting R)

I’ve dubbed this pattern, “The Joseph Smith Formula”.

For example, let’s take a look at D&C 132, the infamous revelation sanctioning (more precisely, “mandating”) polygamy. Here is the official church headnote giving the historical context for this revelation:

Revelation given through Joseph Smith the Prophet, at Nauvoo, Illinois, recorded July 12, 1843, relating to the new and everlasting covenant, including the eternity of the marriage covenant and the principle of plural marriage. Although the revelation was recorded in 1843, evidence indicates that some of the principles involved in this revelation were known by the Prophet as early as 1831. See Official Declaration 1.
( headnote for D&C 132; retrieved date of post)

Take that and then factor in a good understanding of the true Mormon History that surrounded the coming forth of D&C 132[4] and here’s what emerges:

R = God requires the faithful to practice polygamy.
c = Emma Smith knows of Joseph’s adulterous affairs and isn’t happy with them.
d = Joseph Smith is having adulterous affairs (as are several Mormon Leader insiders), wants to continue them, and wants to have more.
t = Emma Smith might publicly expose Joseph’s adulterous affairs thus causing a scandal that could potentially under mind, even destroy the LdS Church.

Last Supper Paint by NumbersTherefore the Threat Intensity Accelerator is quite high in this case. In fact, I would say that on a scale of 1-10 it’s about an eight or nine, possibly even a ten. And as a result you get a long, rambling, grandiose revelation recast and delivered in the second person voice of God voice rather than the human author’s.

And you see this pattern again and again and again in Doctrine & Covenants. In fact, I would assert that one can take any alleged revelation in Doctrine & Covenants (including the Official Declarations) and this formula applies.

Pick a section and try it.

[1] Episode 139b: D&C 8 and 9 for Dummies Part One

Episode 139b: D&C 8 and 9 for Dummies Part Two

The other podcasts on Doctrine & Covenants revelations as of the date of writing are:
Episode 118a: Polygamy Manifesto for Dummies Part 1

Episode 118b: Polygamy Manifesto for Dummies Part 2

Doctrine and Covenants 132 for Dummies Part 1

Doctrine and Covenants 132 for Dummies part 2

The Civil War Prophecy (D&C 87) for Dummies

[2] A Chronological Listing of D&C can be found at:

Doctrine & Covenants: Chronological Order of Contents

[3] I use the term “true Mormon History” here to distinguish and juxtapose against the “Faithful Mormon History” that’s taught by the the LdS Church via it’s Church Educational System and many LdS Mormon Studies Scholars. See “Faithful History: Essays on Writing Mormon History” Edited by George D. Smith; Signature Books, 1992; for a good primer on this topic.

[4] A good, short quick primer on the true Mormon History surrounding D&C 132 can be found in the aforementioned “Doctrine and Covenants 132 for Dummies Part 1″ podcast or in the first few sections of the Wikipedia article on “Mormonism and Polygamy” (see ) as well “The Wives of Joseph Smith” website (see )

(This article was originally published on the Mormon Expression Blogs site on June 21, 2011. This edition has been lighted edited, revised, and expanded to reflect the passage of time and  additional insight and knowledge acquired since then.)

  1. […] (see Wikipedia, “Doctrine and Covenants”.  Also, see the author’s article, “Revelation by Numbers: Introducing “The Joseph Smith Formula” on this […]


  2. […] many of these other “responsive” D&Cs, it still reminds me of this article, ‘Revelation by the Numbers“, which makes the argument that these D&Cs tend to follow a specific formula, so that the […]


  3. […] was just manipulation to get the Mormon laity and leaders alike to go along with whatever JS said. Here is an article that develops the idea more fully and also includes more examples, but basically, “the bigger […]


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